The maiden, the mother and the crone in The night of the hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955).
I didn’t especially like The night of the hunter. I found it has aged badly, and it is told in a not very elegant way, as well as being maybe too straightforward and predictable.
But there was something I did find interesting in it, and that is the role that women play in it. There are lots of female characters in it, but very few are portrayed in a favourable light (probably only one, Ms. Cooper). Well, most of the characters in this movie are either bastards or hypocrites, but I’d like to focus on the women because it also allows me to highlight the way men are portrayed.
The first archetype we see is the mother, Willa. Her husband was no saint and got hung for killing two people while robbing a bank. She’s left with two children who know where the 10,000 dollars are hidden. One of the two crones, Mrs. Spoon, basically coerces her into marrying the first man that shows up because obviously she can’t raise two kids alone. Sadly, that was true back then, in a way, as we’ll see later. And Mrs. Spoon was fatally wrong because Willa could have married any nice fella if she had just opened her eyes and looked around, but she had to marry the one serial killer that is after the robbery money. It qualifies as an idiot plot, too.
So for the moment we have a wife that’s worth nothing without a husband on her side and a crone that basically pushes her into making the worst decision ever. The Preacher not only has the only intention to find out where the money is, he proceeds to humiliate Willa and have her tell everyone that her husband robbed a bank because she wanted clothes and makeup. That could still happen today, but had a deeper impact in a more misogynistic society like the Great Depression, so you’ve now got a broken woman with no agency.
Having made Willa bite the dust, the Preacher turns to the children, what he wanted all along. Pearl trusts him, while John does not. This is not due to her gender, most likely to her being younger and more gullible. But later we’ll see another maiden who clearly falls for whatever the Preacher has. Ruby is young and looking for love whatever way she can, just like Ms. Cooper recognises later. We know that the men she’s lusting after are no good, but she doesn’t. She sees what the Preacher is up to and still doesn’t want to admit it just because he bought her ice-cream and told her she had pretty eyes. In this world, maidens can only marry good men and become mothers or fall into the claws of bad men and perish. And there are a good deal of bad men in this movie. Only the law enforcement members, who are just seen briefly, could be thought of as good men. The rest are either corrupt, like the Preacher and Ben Harper, or plain useless, like Uncle Birdie, who is passed out drunk when the children need him, or Mr. Spoon, who’s consistently ignored and put down by his wife.
Which bring us to Ms. Cooper, the second crone, a mirror image of the first one, Mrs. Spoon, in that she sees right through the Preacher. Ms. Cooper is raising no less than five orphaned children, but nobody cares because she’s a crone, therefore no marriage material. It’s weird that the heroine of this story is a crone, but look at it this way. This story has two kids that need saving, therefore they need a mother, not a father (also, how ridiculous would it look in a patriarchal society that two men fight for the custody of a pair of kids?). Maidens and mothers are systematically labeled as either gullible or whores, so the only thing you have left is a crone. A crone has no husband she’s tied to, so she can adopt a bunch of children if she likes, for all people care. Also she’s proof that Willa could have raised her children alone, that even then a woman could be as resourceful as a man if she could shrug off prejudices and had some luck with her choices.
Last but not least, the analysis could not be complete without looking at the figure of John. John looks up to his father, even if he is no saint, and systematically distrusts both the Preacher and law enforcement. Uncle Birdie disappoints him when he needed him most. When they are taking the Preacher away, the situation mirrors the arrest of his father, which makes him intercede for the Preacher and give up the money, not because he sympathises with the Preacher, but because he wishes he had done that with his father. Curiously enough, at the end of the film John is left in an all-feminine environment, with no male father-figure. For a film and an era so misogynist, it’s a surprising development, and makes me wonder if anyone back then gave it much thought.